Thomas Sankara to comrade Mongo Beti: “Fatherland or death, we will win!”

Sep 19, 2023

Liberation School introduction

This is the first English translation of a 1985 interview with Thomas Sankara conducted by Mongo Beti, which remained unpublished until Beti’s spouse, Odile Tobner, gave the handwritten notes to Bruno Jaffré, who first published it in French on ThomasSankara.net.

Sankara and Beti were united by a shared commitment to defeating colonialism in general and French colonialism in particular. Born in Cameroon when his country was under the colonial rule of France and Britain, Beti consistently struggled for his country’s independence and is one of Cameroon’s most well-known modern writers. His 1956 book, The Poor Christ of Bamba, a scathing indictment of colonialism, was immediately banned by the government although it earned him broad recognition as a political theorist and literary craftsman. Beti and Tobner later founded the journal Peuples Noires/Peuples Africains, or Black People/African People.

While valuable on its own, this interview is particularly relevant in the historical context it provides for understanding the recent resurgence of anti-imperialist struggles throughout Western Africa, including in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Particularly noteworthy is Sankara’s keen awareness of the challenges of diplomacy, trade, and development within a world dominated by capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.

This is the eighth installment in Liberation School’s Thomas Sankara translation project, the result of a partnership with ThomasSankara.net, an online platform dedicated to archiving work on and by the great African revolutionary. As always, we express our gratitude to Bruno Jaffré for establishing this collaboration and providing us with the right to translate this material into English for the first time.

Introduction

His work, novels or essays, depict the colonial and neocolonial world, describing all the abuses [therein]. Censured in France, where his book “Main basse sur le cameroun” (published in English as “Cruel Hand on Cameroun, Autopsy of a Decolonisation”) was banned in 1972, and in Cameroon, where none of his works are in the school curriculum, he fought tirelessly to show the true nature of the system which crushes Africa.

This interview was entrusted to us by Ms. Odile Tobner, Mongo Beti’s partner, who provided the transcription. Ms. Odile Tobner is currently president of the association SURVIE. She has provided some words on the circumstances of this interview: “Mongo Beti went two times to the Fespaco [Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou], in 1985 and in 1987. In 1985 he had a private meeting with Thomas Sankara and after that he sent him a list of questions in writing to which Thomas Sankara responded. The interview is written by the hand of the secretary of the president. He added some comments in his own handwriting.”

This dense interview, which was not able to appear in the journal, touches on numerous questions rarely addressed in the other interviews of Sankara. These include the relationship to tradition, Francophonie, pan-Africanism, and Thomas Sankara’s ideology.

Interview

Mongo Beti: The first question concerns the security of the president and ipso facto the future of the regime. Many Africans think that the insidious campaign which is developing [against you] in the French press is the harbinger of an all out offensive and they are reminded with anguish of Lumumba and N’Krumah. They fear a strategy of physical elimination.

  1. Are you aware of this danger and especially of this anguish of Africans?
  2. Are you aware of the existence of this strategy and especially of this media campaign? Have you read the article which recently appeared in an infamous broadsheet called Black Magazine or something like that? Do you wish to speak about it at any length? I was told about a certain Paul or Pierre Michaud: do you know him?

Thomas Sankara: Allow me to repeat here what you might already know. It’s a fact that we and our Revolution don’t sit well with some people. I’m going to say that it’s normal, considering the class interests that we are led to defend. It is therefore logical and normal that we should have enemies, class enemies, since we have the firm resolution to defend our class interests to the detriment of theirs. That is totally legitimate. From this point of view, it is not shocking that our enemies organize themselves to confront the Revolution everywhere, to smear and denigrate all our actions through the press in an insidious and dishonest way. It’s the case that newspapers are entirely financed, radio shows ordered, and all sorts of low-life actions orchestrated to give our Revolution a totally distorted image. This strategy is well known. It has served imperialism well on several occasions to destabilize some convinced revolutionary regimes, such as N’Krumah, Lumumba, which you have cited for me, and against Allende in Chile, etc. We are aware of it. It is a real danger since there are great means which are employed, day and night, to intoxicate international opinion on the emancipatory struggles of the people.

N’Krumah, Lumumba and many others were victims of imperialism, of this neocolonial strategy. The dignified sons of Africa recognized them as true patriots, as politicians who had a just and great love for Africa and Africans. Today we cannot but admire them and it is an honor for us to show that they were predecessors, guides, pioneers on the path of dignity for Africa.

There are above all today, in the four corners of the continent, N’Krumahs, Lumumbas, Mondlanes, etc. Should Sankara be physically eliminated today, there would be thousands of Sankaras which will take up the challenge against imperialism. As to our Faso, the determination of our people, of our youth, removes all worries as to the pursuit of the struggle for the dignity of Burkina Faso and of our continent. However, for a thousand and one reasons, our people and the revolutionary African youth remain attached to Sankara and hope that the slightest misfortune will never harm him.

Regarding this newspaper Black Magazine and above all its manipulator Paul Michaud, a master singer well known in Burkina, we think that the insanities that he spills out will have no sway over normal people. Michaud appeared to us in the first days of the Revolution to claim millions [of francs], promised to him under the CSP 2 [Council of Popular Salvation, the former government of Mj. Ouedraogo], to [build a positive] brand for the country. Rebuffed, he returned anew, saying that the color of the regime was hardly of any importance for him and that he was looking for the money. Rejected a second time, this crook announced that he would work with the opposition in France and take the offensive against us. His last contact with the Revolution was through someone who, for 30,000 French francs, would try to discourage Michaud from carrying out his plan. Rejected in turn, the go-between was therefore not able to stop the blackmailer’s scheme. But, you see, we have too much to do to worry ourselves with such execrable individuals.

Mongo Beti: I ask myself about the nature of corruption in African societies.

  1. Is it a cursed heritage of colonization?
  2. Is it one of our traditions? (After all, it is well known that [there were] the petty Black kings who would deliver their brothers to the slave merchants for a handful of beads.)

The question is asked because, it seems to me, we don’t fight corruption in the same way, depending on the manner in which one responds to [the question].

What do you think about that?

Thomas Sankara: Without being an informed sociologist, nor an historian of precapitalist African societies, I will not be able to affirm whether corruption is endemic to African societies. It is a phenomenon linked above all to the capitalist system, a socio-economic system which cannot truly evolve without developing corruption. [Corruption] is therefore incontestably a cursed heritage of colonization. Thus, logically, to validly fight colonization, colonialism, and even neocolonialism, we must also attack corruption.

With respect to the feudal kings that colonization used, the handfuls of beads, viewed from Africa, did not resemble corruption because the mode of exchange was based on barter. For the petty-kings, their brothers were sold by them against some value that we consider with hindsight as junk. Each thing has a value only in the practical service that it renders and in the milieu in which its use responds to something else. A king who had never seen himself in a mirror would not hesitate to obtain one for the price of a man, that is to say at the cost of one of his subjects. Therefore he gives a corresponding value in exchange for this thing. He cannot be considered corrupt, even if the colonizer or explorer, in light of the economic system which his society reached, came to him on the basis of corruption.

Mongo Beti: Does this not pose the general problem of tradition? Is there not an incompatibility between the revolution, a process of which one of the challenges is the modernization of our societies, and tradition the effect of which is very often a brake on progress? More precisely, if we want to liberate women, isn’t it necessary to struggle against female genital mutilation [l’excision] and polygamy?

Thomas Sankara: In a general sense, African traditions are based on a backwards ideology. This does not prevent, in all things or in all phenomena, a progressive aspect and a regressive aspect. In our traditions, it is the progressive aspect which we must be taught to identify, to allow society to evolve much more rapidly towards progress, towards the modernism you are speaking of. We did not make a revolution to go back in time. It is always to go forwards. The revolution can not suffocate all the negative aspects of our traditions. This is our fight against all retrograde forces, all the forms of obscurantism. [It is a] legitimate fight and indispensable to free society from all decadent vices and all prejudices, including those which consist in marginalizing women or objectifying them.

I am of the opinion that, to liberate women, we must struggle against female genital mutilation and polygamy. Above all we must know how to engage in the struggle. To forbid [these things] by laws or anything else cannot be the best solution. We struggle for the equality of men and women, not a mechanical or arithmetic equality, but by giving back to women equality with men before the law and above all in paid work. The emancipation of women comes about through education and the acquisition of economic power. In this way work, in same positions as men, at all levels, the same responsibilities, and the same rights and duties [of men and women] are weapons against female genital mutilation and polygamy, weapons which women will not hesitate to use to free themselves and [will not be freed] by anyone else.

Mongo Beti: There was some good in African traditions, it’s true! For example, this or that endless argument certainly indicates the constant demand for consensus. Nevertheless, is it not true that, taken together, African traditions, or what remains of them, are fundamentally retrograde?

Isn’t the logic of the revolutionary process to lead up to a cultural revolution?

Thomas Sankara: In the sense that social revolution is the radical transformation of society at all levels, the whole revolutionary process cannot lead to anything but a cultural revolution. But culture is linked with society in the sense that there is not any human society without culture and any culture without correspondence with a society.

Mongo Beti: One example: the reverence of age. Is this value not one which lends itself most easily to manipulation by neocolonialism? Thus the French press regularly pit the age of Houphouët-Boigny [president of Ivory Coast from 1960 to 1993] against the young generation of Ivorians who want to hold their president to account.

Thomas Sankara: The reverence of age is one aspect of African culture. Nobody can deny it insofar as, in our societies, gerontocracy emerged as the system of power which has always been adopted and applied. It is normal that neocolonialism uses our own systems, our vision of the world, to manipulate [us] for its profit. The image of the elder, symbol of sagacity, of experience, of merit is still very much accepted in Africa compared with the image of the youth, symbol of inexperience, of uncertainty, of the rupture of normalcy. These are some aspects of our traditions which neocolonialism knows well, which wants to exploit them to manipulate African opinion. It is in this sense that the French and Western press cut short debates between African generations, to mask acute class contradictions at the heart of certain African societies, trying to break the fighting spirit of young people who want to put an end to a moldy past which paralyzes their country day by day.

Mongo Beti: Concerning cooperation: can one justify the maintenance of privileged relations with the power which colonized us? If not, why do you continue to participate in summits of the heads of francophone states, who are so poorly thought of by the educated African youth?

Thomas Sankara: From the dialectical point of view, everything or every action has an explanation in its history – whether it’s the relations of such or such a country, even if it is a colonizing power. Everything is here, beyond ideological divergences which can arise. And there are state to state relations. Struggling for one’s independence in the face of colonialism does not mean that one prepares, once [independence is] obtained, to leave Earth to go isolate oneself in some part of the galaxy. As for the summits of francophone heads of state, they serve, each time that we have the occasion to take part in them, as tribune, as springboard for our revolution, to make our revolution known, to speak openly of what [our revolution] thinks of these conferences or political bodies. To participate in them to denounce what is not in the interest of African people is a much more profitable strategy than sarcastic messages from outside. It is in this way that we see things in the framework of our revolutionary process.

Mongo Beti: Regarding the plan for the domination of our people, did the French left when it was in power have a different practice from that of the right? Can you share with the journal Black People, African People at least one part of your personal experience? For example, how did Guy Penne [counselor of African affairs for French president Francois Mitterand] instigate a coup against you?

Thomas Sankara: With respect to the expectations of African people, in general the French left has disappointed people, above all the African youth. Since independence, from 1960 to 1981, we haven’t known anything but the right. In May 1981, a new experience full of promises presented itself for Africans. The simple comparison was already [made]. Very soon, everyone realized that things didn’t fundamentally change. In short, it was white hat and hat white. My personal experience, which is also the experience of African people, is that the step to defend the French interests in ex-colonies (Chad, CAR) and colonies (New Caledonia, Comoros…) strangely reminds one of the principles of action of Jacques Foccart [Secretary General of African Affairs for right wing presidents de Gaulle and Pompidou, as well as organizer of multiple coups].

The coup of Guy Penne has been sufficiently denounced and brought to the attention of international opinion for me to return to it later.

Mongo Beti: Concerning the franc zone: the most recent justification for keeping our countries in the franc zone is the convertibility of the CFA franc. But what is the advantage for the poor, that is to say the nine-tenths of our society? What need does the African peasant, in his village, have for a convertible currency?

Briefly, isn’t the CFA franc a weapon for the domination of Africans?

Does revolutionary Burkina Faso plan to continue to drag this ball and chain?

Thomas Sankara: Whether the currency is convertible or nonconvertible has never been the preoccupation of the African peasant. He has been reluctantly immersed in an economic system against which he is powerless. It is necessary, I think, to organize him to protect himself against the evils of such a system. It is here where the problem lies, in the extent that currency is not isolated from the whole economic system. In this sense I would say that the CFA franc, linked to the French monetary system, is a weapon of French domination. The French economy and, therefore, the French merchant capitalist builds his fortune on the back of our peoples on the basis of this link, of this monetary monopoly. That is why Burkina Faso fights to put an end to this situation through the struggle of our people for the building of a self-sufficient and independent economy. How much longer it will last, I cannot say.

Mongo Beti: Concerning technical assistance: personally I’ve always considered that it was first of all a matter of timing. How much time do you think will pass until Burkina Faso can go without non-African technical assistance? Do you have a recruitment strategy for African technical assistance? What is it?

Thomas Sankara: This is very difficult to determine because it is a rather complex domain, where enormous financial means and techniques are necessary. But the shortest possible time would be the best. There is no better strategy than the reinforcement of South-South cooperation in the matter of technical assistance. All those who would like to discuss their assistance to Burkina Faso will be welcome. The Burkina land is a free land of brotherhood and friendship between peoples. Burkinabes are therefore ready to welcome those who wish to come work with us to build the new society. That is our strategy for the moment.

Mongo Beti: Concerning the League of Black States, of which Mr. Mobutu Sese Seko made himself the apostle: do you think that such an initiative should be taken seriously? Above all coming from people who have not stopped sabotaging the Organization of African Unity?

Thomas Sankara: Comrade President Sankara gave his point of view on the League of Black States affair. A league of Black states for what goal? To defend what interests? Or it’s fashionable, because something like it exists elsewhere. I do not see the necessity of such a thing, once more muddying the consciousness of Africans. The Organization of African Unity is still a reality. Why not seek to reinforce it, to reinvigorate such a pan-African organization, which is much more significant, than to jump into the creation of political structures, by pure snobbishness or on one’s orders, which will be nothing but a sounding board for international imperialism? I confess that I do not see certain heads of state visibly struck with such lack of logic.

Mongo Beti: Concerning pan-Africanism: nobody talks about it anymore today, or they do so very little. The African youth, for whom pan-Africanism was a mystique, a force for hope, an extraordinary motivation, are today profoundly frustrated.

Do you think you will pick up the torch of N’Krumah?

How? Perhaps through regional rapprochements?

Thomas Sankara: In fact pan-Africanism, in its pure concept, was a great hope, not only for Africans, but for Blacks of the diaspora. This political phenomenon has caused much ink to be spilled in many circles. I won’t dwell on it. But I think that it is a problem, a very serious question for Africans, if they want to truly liberate themselves from all foreign domination. Today everyone sees with bitterness, faced with the evils and other exactions of imperialism in Africa, that N’Krumah was very much correct to try to unite the continent with all his might. Nevertheless the idea remains and it belongs to us. It is for African patriots to struggle, everywhere and always, for its concretization. It is for all pan-African people to take up the torch of N’Krumah to bring hope to Africa.

Mongo Beti: Concerning the French language and Francophonie- personally I consider these two different problems: the status of the French language is a fact that has its origin in history.

Francophonie is a strategy to control our creativity and even our future. Do you accept this distinction?

  1. Do you envisage a substitution of the national languages of Burkina Faso for French, in its current role as the official language? Or do you think that French should remain in this role? If so, for how long? For once and for all?
  2. Francophonie is theoretically the common cultural institutions (cinema, print media, television, broadcast media, etc.) which are controlled by France but which we can only minimally access. Don’t you think that it is urgent that we create our own institutions, our own cultural apparatus?

Example: I learned that Burkina Faso had created a prize for literature. Unfortunately, the prize is only 150,000 CFA francs.

Don’t you think that it is too little to motivate talented authors?

If I might allow myself to give some advice, I would say that an amount of two million CFA francs would not be excessive to compensate the winner (experience has shown that the option of a single winner is by far the best).

Thomas Sankara: I am in complete agreement with you as to this distinction. The historic fact is [at play] here and the neocolonial strategy is also here. Francophonie is nothing other than that. Unfortunately there are quite a few Africans who defend [Francophonie] more than the French themselves. It is a paradox, but a paradox which is perfectly explainable by the acculturation and the perfect cultural alienation of these Africans.

Regarding Burkina Faso, we are in the middle of a total education reform, where the problem of national languages and of the French language is at the center of debate. The question is not yet settled, but things seem to evolve towards the use of the French language as the language of unification of our multiple nationalities; and from the point of view of efficiency [it is] the best solution of the problem before us. That will not mean that our national languages will be rejected, far from it.

With language in general, being above classes, it will be up to us, as revolutionaries, to know how to put the French language into the service of our class interests. It is in this framework that we are called to create our own institutions, for a cultural apparatus in the service of our people, if our struggle is to succeed, in view of the harmful influence which follows from cultural invasion, of which we are essentially the object from the French side. The revolution, in our current context, is above all mental liberation. And we must make this happen as soon as possible for total victory.

As for the novel, I think that you wish to speak about the Sidwaya [the government newspaper of Burkina Faso] contest for best novel. It’s true that the prize amount is paltry but it is necessary to take into account here the moral aspect and especially the political will to break with customs, to say nothing of slavery. There are always imperialist countries who organize this type of contest, to invite Africans to participate in them so as to enclose them in their cultural prism. This contest is a break, to show that Africans are also capable of organizing such things to show their vision of the world to the rest of the world.

I think that the literary prize of Black Africa awarded in France doesn’t surpass 100,000 CFA francs. But many Africans fight to take part in it. They will be able to compete for the Sidwaya prize for the best novel, which is in its early days. When our means permit us, the prize will be able to evolve toward the two million of which you speak.

Mongo Beti: Concerning savage urbanization: I have observed two African cities, Algiers and Brazzaville. Above all, Algiers. As soon as we house inhabitants of a slum in a low-rent housing project, they are immediately replaced by battalions from a rural exodus. Thus the leaders are forced into a desperate race in this delirious development of the capital. At this rate, African capitals are soon going to absorb the whole national budget.

  1. Are you already there with Ouagadougou?
  2. Without adopting the extreme attitude of a Pol Pot, don’t you think that we must put a stop to this heritage which mortgages our development? The colonial city has been created for the colonizer, not for the African.

Thomas Sankara: Comparatively, Ouagadougou is not as populated as Brazzaville and Algiers. But this phenomenon is noticeable. We have a solution for it by a vigorous policy of housing development at a grand scale. All the slums are broken up to rebuild decent housing. Thus the city An II, the city An III, the SOGOGIB projects, the August 4th cities, the popular housing developments are responses to this question.

In this perspective we are trying to reduce as much as we can the difference between the city and the countryside by developing all the infrastructure in the countryside to make life comfortable in the country and thereby putting a brake on the rural exodus. Thus socio-cultural centers, centers of popular leisure activities, movie theaters, dance halls, and modern orchestras have been set down in the countryside. There is a colonial heritage that we can only take into account, taking care to eliminate its evils. That’s the case with the city.

Mongo Beti: And now the personal and colorful register, which unfortunately fascinates the crowds!

Are you a Marxist? Since when? Following what evolution?

Some accuse you (basely, it is true, and you can legitimately object that this doesn’t merit a response) of practicing a politics inspired by a feeling of personal vengeance and not founded on ideological choice. Maybe it is time for you to explain.

Thomas Sankara: I am for the moment anti-imperialist. The same is true for the comrade president. We think that refers to a more precise ideology. [This appellation] is already enough for us to be useful to our people, above all when our people don’t bother themselves with how their leaders are labeled but judge them above all by their revolutionary task. We will see much later…

Mongo Beti: With regards to the single party: don’t you believe that this type of organization is discredited and no longer enough to motivate the population? Rather than a single party, don’t you think that a dominant party, modeled on the Congress Party of India, would do better?

Thomas Sankara: What is discredited is the single bourgeois party because, obedient to the ideology of injustice, it gives the leading role to a minority at the expense of the majority.

A single democratic party, that is to say a party of the people, can in no way be discredited because it’s in the service of the people, in the interests of the majority. It is on such a basis that we must look at the question of a single party, which is also the outlook of the masses.

If the Congress Party of India serves as an example today, it is undeniable that it is a unified party, although I am not familiar with its structure, which is in the service of the Indian people.

Mongo Beti: According to you, is socialism incompatible with pluralism of information?

Thomas Sankara: I think that socialism goes hand in hand with pluralism of information. Because socialism is the people in power with an economic system which allows these people to realize the objectives of their happiness. But a people is at the same time a unity in diversity of tastes and of sensibilities. To inform is also to satisfy tastes. That is what the socialist countries are attempting to do, I believe.

Mongo Beti: Without pluralism, can one avoid the slide towards the classical evils of bureaucratization: incompetence, inefficiency, nepotism, responsibility, etc., finally stagnation, i.e. disaffection of the masses?

Thomas Sankara: I am going to turn your question around. Does pluralism lead to these classical evils? I think that everything depends on men and their understanding of things, of history. Pluralism or no pluralism, we must put in place that which eliminates injustice. It is social injustice which leads to these evils. Yet social injustice stems from an economic system which must be eliminated to end these things with necessary discipline.

Mongo Beti: Does the Burkinabe revolution consider abandoning a sector or several sectors of the national economy to private initiative? Or do you believe that the state can do it all? Thanks in advance!

Thomas Sankara: The Burkinabe revolution considers private initiative as a dynamic that takes into account the current stage of the struggle of the Burkinabe people. The discussion of the political orientation of the 9th of October is clear on this point.

The state cannot engage in wide-ranging state control, even if control of a certain number of vital sectors of our economy proves to be necessary.

To comrade Mongo Beti, 11/3/1985

Fatherland or death, we will win!

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